I’ve interviewed The Royal Ballet’s principal ballerina Yasmine Naghdi several times over the past five years. The first time, she was a soloist and preparing to debut as Juliet with Matthew Ball as Romeo. The last time was 18-months ago, a few months after her debut in Swan Lake, a role she was scheduled to reprise this spring, but then The Royal Opera House closed its doors.
She is currently on holiday in my adopted homeland, Italy. However, while I’m in the north by the Ligurian Sea, Yasmine and her Italian boyfriend are in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. I spoke to her via Skype in early May and asked her whether she was with him in lockdown.
We’re in quarantine in our flat. I think when we last spoke, it must have been early on in our relationship. We’re now coming up to two years together.
How’s your Italian?
I’m actually learning Italian. I love languages, and as his parents don’t speak much English, it’s a good incentive for me to be able to speak their language and communicate with them.
I need to speak as it is the best way to learn, so I’m jealous of people like you who are there often. I spent a little bit of time in Sicily with his family over the new year and just hearing them speak was the best way for me to absorb it and try and speak back. I felt that I’d made really good progress over those three days, but then you take a step back when you come home again. I have one or two lessons a week via Skype at the moment, now that I have a bit more time on my hands.
It’s good to have another language in my pocket. I speak a good amount of French and a little bit of Flemish. My mother’s Belgian so I grew up hearing [the family] speak, and although I never learned to read or write Flemish, I spent holidays there and I learnt it quite well, hearing it all the time. I’ve been around languages all my life, so I just love to have another one.
It’s a good outlet for me as well, as the ballet work uses a different part of the brain. So finishing the day and studying written and spoken Italian is very stimulating, and I enjoy it.
So tell me about life in lockdown.
Well, it’s definitely been an adjustment. As a dancer, you’re constantly working to a schedule. You always have a goal in mind, the performance you’re working towards, a deadline. When I was a student, it was the same thing: schedules, deadlines and goals. For that all to come to a complete halt is a real shock, and there’s nothing you can do about it. We can’t work from home as we need the rehearsal studio. We need each other to dance with. We need the stage and the audience to be there for us. So for dancers, it’s impossible, and I think the acceptance of that is the first step.
How have you been coping without a schedule?
I just needed to find a way to have my own daily schedule. I love having structure. I make lists every day – maybe I’m a bit OCD. Whether cleaning my flat, doing a ballet class, cooking a new meal, researching something, or having an Italian lesson, I’ve structured my day to give me a little schedule. That helped me a lot in the early days of lockdown. What’s been really great is Kevin [O’Hare], our director, together with The Royal Ballet health care team, has arranged for us to have ballet classes, Pilates, yoga and strength training through Zoom.
We’ve got an amazing weekly schedule: Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, floor barre and ballet class. And we’re all kind of logging on and seeing each other in our various homes with people holding onto the kitchen counter, people holding the sofa. It’s really fun. As you know, there are dancers from all around the world, in all the different time zones, so you’ve got someone who logs on at 5 am in Miami or in Brazil or Japan. It’s really fun to see everyone come together and it feels family orientated with all of us joining in for our daily ballet class. And then on Tuesday and Thursdays, we’re provided with a yoga session, and strength training, like cardio and weights. People use tins cans as substitute weights! And then we also have Pilates, so we’re being provided with a really great way to maintain some fitness at home. Hopefully, it won’t be a complete shock to the body when we eventually go back to the opera house.
How does Pilates and so on work on Zoom?
Well, for example, the Pilates teacher will set an exercise doing the first step with us, and then she’ll come and look at the screen to see all of us and then give us some corrections. It’s really nice that it’s quite intimate and that just with The Royal Ballet members. But I know that Kevin has made these classes also available to external companies, which is so wonderful. So they’ve organised it so that everyone can have an allocated time.
Lauren [Cuthbertson] told me about the delivery of Harlequin dance flooring and a barre?
That is a saving grace because pointe shoes on a wooden floor is a no-no. So for weeks and weeks, I wasn’t able to do any form of a pirouette because I was worried about slipping. But then Kevin spoke with Aud Jebsen who very generously helped get Harlequin deliveries to everyone’s home, even in Brazil and the States. Everyone now has these Harlequin floors, which is very, very helpful for pointe shoes especially because it gives just the right amount of grip and friction without it being sticky, if you see what I mean. We were quite spoiled by that delivery.
I imagine that a grand jeté isn’t possible, but how much can you do?
Well I can jump on my exercise mat, which is quite thick, and first of all, it is kind to my neighbours – I haven’t had any complaints about loud jumping! It absorbs the sound, and I can do first position échappés and some sissonne side, for example. And secondly, it’s kind for my bones as well, because if you jump on a hard floor, there’s a risk of getting a dropped metatarsal or a strain in the shin. So I didn’t want to risk any of that. I also try to do a little bit of plyometric training every so often just to ensure that those muscles are still there and active. But like you said, grand jetés aren’t quite possible, but what I do do is kind of mark jetés, just for the muscle memory.
As you can’t travel far on your mat, what do you do for cardio and your stamina?
I always thought that running was not good for dancers: it’s bad for knees, it’s bad for ankles, and it’s in parallel, and we’re not really used to having that impact in parallel position. But when we went into lockdown, we got an email from our healthcare team saying that they wanted us to be open-minded about running. They said that they wanted us to give our muscles and bones the feeling of impact. That way, it’s not a complete shock to the system when we do return to work because, of course, that’s our biggest fear. None of the dancers has ever had a break this long unless they’ve been injured, so everyone’s fearful about coming back to work and then getting injured.
So I started running a little bit and, of course, I panicked at first because I thought, oh my god, I’m going to be exhausted. I’m used to working anaerobically, which is very stop-start with intense bursts and then rest. With running, it’s just consistent cardio. But once I started doing it, and I started quite slowly, I really surprised myself at how long I could run for. One day I was running with my boyfriend, and he encouraged me to run for nearly an hour [she laughs], and I hated him a little bit after that! I would never have thought I would be able to run an hour in my life, but I did it. So there’s a first, and I’ve also invested in a skipping rope because I’ve heard that it’s a really good way to get your heart rate up as well. I’ve been enjoying different ways to stay fit and exercise during this time.
Have you ever had injuries that have kept you off stage for a lengthy period?
I have been incredibly lucky with injuries. I had one injury, which was shin splints, when I was 16 years old, and I put that down to training at the same time as growing with the body having to keep up with the demands. I never stopped dancing, but I had to stop jumping for about three weeks because of the strain it was putting on my shins. As you’re young, you bounce back quite quickly. That was the only dance-related injury where I had to sort of take a step back. There have been other niggles here and there, which maybe took a day or two, but nothing severe.
However, last summer we were on holiday and I was walking on a rocky beach. I lost my balance when a boulder kind of shook loose and I landed really badly. It was at a bit of a height and I dropped down on my left ankle and, I kid you not, it swelled up to the size of a grapefruit. Of course, being on holiday, I’m panicking, and I thought immediately that I’d broken it. We drove to the local hospital, and I managed to get an x-ray which ruled out a break, but there was a severe sprain.
I had something like five weeks until I was meant to do Swan Lake at the Kremlin Palace. It was something I was really excited about and looking forward to, but of course, you’ve got all the fouettés on that left foot. I’d never had such a severe sprain before, so I had no idea of how long it would take to get that strength back. That was the first injury I’ve ever had that took me completely off dancing for, I’d say, about six to eight weeks. But, in the grand scheme of things, I consider myself still incredibly lucky because that’s not long compared to what a lot of other dancers have had to go through. People that have had a snapped ACL need a year to recover and stress fractures can take a lot longer. So I still consider myself really, really lucky. It’s just silly that it was unrelated to dance.
So many people have said that to me that these things happen when you’re off your guard. I said to my parents over and over that I couldn’t believe the amount of difficult ballets I’ve done, the risks that I’ve taken, the near injury moments that have happened to me on stage and yet I walk away unscathed. And then on holiday I fall badly on my ankle and this happens. It’s unbelievable.
I missed dancing the mistress in Manon, two performances, and I had to cancel the performances at the Kremlin. It took me until January, so a good six months, to dance without pain. My first performance back from that injury was a live cinema relay when I danced the second movement pas de deux of Concerto, so no pressure! And then my second performance back was the opening night of Sleeping Beauty. So again…
The power of the mind and the amazing power of the body to heal… it teaches you a lot to have an injury like that.
What should you have been dancing in this in this period? Are you missing out on any debuts?
I had a couple of Wayne McGregor works because what was remaining of the rest of our season was the Live Fire Exercise, Prodigal Son and Corybantic Games bill and I was meant to debut in Live Fire Exercise, so I’ve missed out on that. Also, there were my three Swan Lake performances that I was due to dance with Matthew Ball. That was quite sad because I love Swan Lake as I really connect with this ballet and I was revisiting it for the second time after having danced it for the first time two years ago in 2018.
On the scheduled day of my first performance this year, I got a phone call from Kevin, my director, it was so sweet. It was 7.30, which is usually our start time, and he said, “I was just thinking of you. I can’t believe that now the curtain would be going up on Swan Lake, and we would have all been settling down to watch the show. It’s just so surreal to think that it’s not happening.” Then, for the whole evening, I was looking at the clock going, “OK, it’s 8.30, and the curtain would have been down after the white act,” and, “Now I would have been doing fouettés,” and, “Now the curtain would have been coming down at the end,” and “Now I would have been on the tube home.” I was kind of following it with the timings for everything would have been happening… I couldn’t help it.
It’s thoughtful that he called you.
So lovely. Kevin said he looked in his diary and saw that it was our performance that night. It was nice to get a call from him and just have a general chat.
Also, I think I was going to be involved in the sequel to [Wayne McGregor’s] The Dante Project. No casting had really been mentioned, but it was in the pipeline. Some rehearsals were due to start during the first week of lockdown. Then we had a tour to Doncaster that we would have been doing in July. So not too much, but I felt bad about the Swan Lakes. I have a feeling it might return soon because we missed so many performances and it’s such a wonderful ballet and such an audience pleaser.
Why do you love Swan Lake? Some dancers don’t enjoy its challenges.
You know, you either love it or hate it, I think. I’ve always been someone that loves a challenge and pushing myself to try and achieve something that’s hard to reach. It then feels even better if it goes well, and you just think, “Oh, I’ve done it. I’ve achieved what I dreamed of.”
Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake are the two hardest classical ballets in the repertoire without a doubt. When you dance either of those ballets, and you feel that you’ve done them well, it’s the best feeling in the world to hear that audience applaud after all the hard work you put in.
In Swan Lake, I love the contrast of the roles; being two people in the same ballet. I love dancing very quietly, peacefully, and gracefully as the white swan.
With that wonderful music – especially played live in a theatre.
Of course, the music is so famous and, as you say, live music is just irreplaceable for the feeling that it gives you.
And then you morph into the black swan.
Putting on that costume starts the change, and then the headdress goes on, and the makeup becomes more dramatic, and then you see yourself in this stunning black glittering tutu and you have to be a completely different person. It’s really adrenalin-fuelled. You’ve got that balance in arabesque, and you’re building up to it and, although you’re tired, you have to contain yourself. Then you’ve got this very long solo with the menège at the end, and so you’re even more tired when you have to come on and do 32 fouettés well, so it’s a great challenge. I love that feeling when it goes well, and that’s why I really love this ballet.
Have you been watching some of the dance videos that companies have been offering online?
Yes, I have. It’s so wonderful. I was just thinking that during this time what’s really helping people is art. That’s why it’s so important for people to have that escapism through various means, be it through music or through movement. Having ballet streamed has offered people a little moment to forget about what’s going on in the world right now and allow themselves to be transported a little. I tuned in to all of the Royal Ballet screenings, the Mayerling from Stuttgart, and the various videos that are coming from Russian companies. I saw English National Ballet’s Dust, which was really beautiful, and Hofesh Shechter’s Clowns – that was really interesting.
I am not a ballet bunhead, so to speak. I’m not someone who watches ballet videos all day. I never really was. They inspired me obviously, and from time to time, yes, but I would never want to be completely immersed in it, day and night. I love having a normal life alongside my ballet life. It’s different for everyone, and some people need to be in it all the time, but for me, I love the balance, that work/life balance. And I think it makes me appreciate it more when I come back to it.
So in terms of non-ballet stuff, we’ve been watching a lot of Netflix – I heard that their shares have completely skyrocketed during this time. I really enjoy watching Killing Eve, which is on BBC iPlayer.
I also watched a documentary about Manolo Blahnik, the shoe designer [MANOLO: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards], which is fantastic. He’s such a character, really upbeat – the kind of guy you just want to be best friends with. I started Ozark because everyone was talking about it, but it didn’t click with me for some reason.
It’s very dark.
VERY dark. I wanted to like it so badly because everyone was just raving and raving about it, but unfortunately, no. We’ve also watched a Spanish series called Elite, which is fun, full of very good looking people at a school, but when three students from an underprivileged background arrive on a scholarship, someone gets murdered. It’s kind of a murder mystery. It’s definitely glossy, but it’s been great for quarantine, and it’s got a really nice soundtrack.
I also love watching Chef’s Table on Netflix. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of those.
I’m a fan.
Oh, I’m so glad, me too. I’ve been watching a lot of those because it’s really artistic. I said to my boyfriend that these chefs are artists expressing themselves through their food.
I remember you telling me that you love cooking.
I’m doing a lot of cooking, and this has been the perfect time because I’m not exhausted, and I’m not limited with time. At the end of the workday, when I finish at 6.30 and come home, I just want to make a really quick pasta to get my carbs, with some chicken for example, and I don’t have time or energy to experiment. Now, during this time, I’ve been experimenting with different cuisines: some Chinese fusion food and a lot of Italian food. I’m trying to perfect my spaghetti alle vongole which is really good.
I’ll believe you.
No really! We’re making fresh pasta, and we’ve bought basil plants. Having an Italian around the house has taught me to buy high-quality ingredients all the time, which I really appreciate. So that’s been something I’ve enjoyed. Dinner is being planned right from the morning.
You sound very positive and happy, but I imagine you’ve had some down moments too?
We’re only human. Yes, of course there are down days, most definitely. We’re all going through ups and downs and sometimes I kind of just wake up feeling a bit low and uninspired. On those days, I’ve learned not to get angry at myself at feeling that way, and if I want a day to just sort of be in a slump, I have to let myself and I shouldn’t fight that feeling. I shouldn’t try and push past it because then I irritate myself even more. I’m getting a really good amount of sleep every night, so I can’t blame it on being tired, but I’ve learned to understand myself and those days.
I think that quarantine time has taught me to listen to my body in a psychological way rather than just how it is feeling, like “Oh, I’m tired because I went from 10.30 to 6.30 yesterday,” or, “I had a late performance last night.”
On those days I just try and get out of the house and get some fresh air, because it can be hard staying in all the time. I know that with you in Italy it is even more strict than it is here. We’ve been so lucky being allowed to go up to the park, allowed to do exercise outdoors. So I’ll try and push myself to go for a run, which, you know, get those endorphins going.
Are you keep in contact with friends and share these feelings with them?
Oh yes. It’s been great taking time to call people and chat to people a little bit more. There was a time that I was calling my colleagues on a daily basis and I thought, you know what, I’m actually talking to them more than I would normally at work because I would be in rehearsal here and they would be there. It’s been nice to connect with people.
What other positive things will you take away from this quarantine period?
I hope that coming out of this will give people a lot of positivity. I think it will definitely change the way people think about life in general, about what’s important. All the material things are not as important as people thought, and I’ve been appreciating the simple things in life. Being able to go to the supermarket and then make a good meal is a simple pleasure. I found myself returning to some old ways.
We bought some board games and have been playing those together. You know, we’ve been playing Scrabble quite a lot. I’ve been really enjoying it, and I would never have done that. I think it’s taking time to do things that we used to enjoy doing back in the day.
It’s definitely made me far more appreciative about things that we have but usually took for granted. Being able to give your best friend a hug, you know, or being able to see your family regularly. It’s kind of crazy, but I’ve not seen my sister since January. She went on a skiing trip before the lockdown and then decided to stay in Normandy with her French boyfriend.
It’s been such a stressful time for so many – especially the key workers who are working to save people’s lives or the people who are ill at the moment. I think it’s made me grateful to be in my position, keeping in mind all of those who are really going through a difficult time. It is a great time for reflection in general.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.